AF sets sights on night-flight training

Flight simulation lets Air Force pilots train without flying under dangerous conditions.

The Air Force is building a prototype system to simulate flying with night vision goggles to improve safety for F-16 undergoing training.

Air Force officials said pilots need the simulation system, which will be delivered in September, because the service has seen a number of fatalities during night vision goggle training, in which pilots learned while flying.

'This is an absolutely critical need,' said Col. Mike Chapin, director of the training systems products group at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. 'If you look back at the actions in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq, we do a lot of operations at night. This requirement came out of these operations.'

Flight simulation prepares pilots for difficult conditions they fly under, including fast speeds and low altitudes. The system produces imagery on helmet-mounted displays that have the same size, weight and functionality as the real goggles they use on the battlefield, officials said.

'If you're going to put your life on the line you want to know you've [been] given the best training possible,' Chapin said.

The Air Force has awarded a contract worth more than $30 million to Lockheed Martin Corp. to serve as the prime integrator. SGI received a $1.6 million subcontract to build the prototype and a $3.6 million deal to install the night vision goggle simulation at 14 training centers.

'The advantage is here you can control the environment to train all the dangerous aspects on using these goggles,' said Steve Detro, director of business development for DOD and intelligence programs at SGI.

'The reason this program exists was because there were a number of fatal accidents in training,' Detro added.

The simulation training was designed to help pilots become comfortable with the display night vision goggles provide, officials said.

'One of the problems has been the lack of ability to simulate all of these different types of physics effects that you get in the night vision goggles themselves,' said Maj. Steve Beyer, lead engineer for F-16 mission training centers.

Detro said the new technology is an enhancement of the extremely high-fidelity visual systems on the F-16, in which photographic imagery is used.

'This will enhance that fidelity even more by adding physics-based multispectral enhancements to the database,' Detro said. 'Through the simulation of the night vision, the scene will be projected into the pilot's eyes through the goggles, and he'll have the feeling of being in his F-16 with his real goggles on.'

Detro said that by using computers to simulate the visual effects of the night vision goggle's sensor, the Air Force can train pilots to be aware of danger that can be caused by explosions on the ground or missiles in the air.

'If you can imagine sitting in a cockpit accelerating from 0 to 500 mph and thrusting yourself into the darkness, that's the critical issue,' Detro said.

The program uses Onyx 3900 supercomputers from SGI, along with software from MultiGen-Paradigm Inc., of San Jose, Calif., and the Air Force Research Laboratory in Mesa, Ariz.

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